The Future of Social Work in the United States: Implications for Field Education

By Reisch, Michael; Jarman-Rohde, Lily | Journal of Social Work Education, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

The Future of Social Work in the United States: Implications for Field Education


Reisch, Michael, Jarman-Rohde, Lily, Journal of Social Work Education


IN THE UNITED STATES, schools of social work, in collaboration with social service agencies, have played a critical role in shaping the character of social welfare and the social work profession for the past century. They have helped define the meaning of social service, influenced the public's perception of social work, and determined the patterns of leadership within the profession. Going beyond the mere conveyance of information and the narrow development of technical skills, social work education complements the stated practice goals of the profession (Lewis, 1982).

In recent years, however, welfare reform legislation; the privatization of social services; the spread of managed care in the health and mental health fields; and persistent attacks on immigrants, persons of color, and gays and lesbians have made reaching these goals more challenging (Davis, 1997; Newsome, 1997). It is important, therefore, that social work educators focus on "common human needs" more strategically to influence national priorities (Kreuger, 1997; Netting & Williams, 1998).

This article discusses some major developments shaping social work practice and education, with particular attention to their implications for field education. These developments are economic globalization, the changing political climate, the growing use of technology, demographic shifts and their impact on the status of cities in our society, the changing nature of social service agencies, and changes in American universities. This article also suggests ways social work educators might respond to these developments.

Economic Globalization

While the effects of economic globalization in the United States are too extensive to analyze here in depth, four major trends stand out. One is the marked increase in social and economic inequality. Social and economic inequalities in the United States are higher now than in any other industrialized nation and the highest since data were first collected at the end of World War II (Office of Economic Cooperation and Development, 1995).

A second trend is the growing insecurity of employment coupled with a sharp decline in the average worker's wages and benefits. Two wage-earner families--where possible--are now the norm, more for reasons of economic survival than personal fulfillment. Single-parent households, regardless of race, are at far greater risk of poverty (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996).

A third trend is the decline in the social character of work, which refers to the extent to which people interact on a face-to-face level, individually, or in groups in their employment. This contributes to the alienation of large segments of our population and the increased incidence of drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and mental illness. It exacerbates the growing isolation of American social life, reduces daily interracial and interclass contact, and heightens intergroup suspicion and hostility. Finally, this decline creates barriers to the formation of alliances across racial and class lines around issues of mutual concern (Rifkin, 1995).

A fourth and most ominous trend is the growing inability of 20th century government institutions to influence 21st century forms of economic organization, production, and distribution (Greider, 1996; Soros, 1997). Social work and social work education have generally assumed a benign and potentially constructive role for government in the amelioration of economic and social problems (Axinn & Levin, 1996). This transformation, therefore, could have jarring effects on social work practice and the education of students regarding their potential contribution to improving social welfare.

These four trends have already altered the scope and objectives of welfare provision and the responsibilities of government for addressing human needs. In combination with new methods of funding social services, they are reshaping the landscape of social service work. …

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